Holocaust memorial off-limits to AfD leader


originally published at The Leipzig Glocal

 

Even with a global rise of the extreme-right, it’s safe to say no one would expect its leaders to visit a holocaust memorial with any intention other than to cause trouble. That seems to have been the thinking as member of the far-right wing AfD Björn Höcke was blocked from attending a holocaust memorial at the former concentration camp Buchenwald. Such a decision at first seems reasonable; even sensible, but there are implications. It was certainly right to block him entry to the memorial, but that doesn’t mean his spiteful opinions should be silenced entirely, as to do so has its own dangers.

Would Höcke have been rejected entry to the memorial if he had not made his recent speech in which he called for an end to what in his eyes is a culture of lingering on nazi crimes?

He described the Berlin holocaust memorial as a ‘memorial of shame’ and demanded a ‘180 degree turn in political memory’. These are hardly the words of a politician wishing to attend a holocaust memorial to pay respects. Either he is a hypocrite who likes to make controversial statements for fun and not for action, or Höcke intended to carry out some form of twisted protest at the very site of historical horror and regret.

Höcke’s party leader, Frauke Petry, even denounced the speech, stating that “Björn Höcke has become a burden for the party, with his go-it-alone attitude and constant sniping”. This highlights how much he and his views stand outside of an already far-right party. Petry’s condemnation could however be taken to be in the light of the recent attempted ban of the extreme-right NPD. The AfD cannot risk being seen as too far-right as that would risk being considered Verfassungswidrig, against the constitution.

As right-populist as the AfD is, they are not the NPD. It appears as if Höcke would fit nicely into the more extreme, but in disarray party. The decision not to ban the NPD was followed by disbelief at the time, as the reason given was that the part was too insignificant to damage Germany’s democracy. The AfD in contrast is not insignificant and therefore would not have the same defence against an attempted ban. As unfortunate as Höcke’s views are, he should be allowed to express them. We know from the past that banning extreme opinions in their entirety causes greater problems by driving supporters of such views underground. That eventually leads to groups like the NSU and the RAF terrorist organisations of the not-so-far past.

Höcke’s ban from attending the memorial therefore comes down to location. Although historical memorials do have a political background and do have political consequences, they are not the location for aggressively stirring up emotionally-fuelled political questions. It is impossible not to be shaken emotionally by a visit to a former concentration camp. Many visiting the Buchenwald memorial will have been affected more personally than others.  Whether Germany does as Höcke believes linger too much on past horrors or not, a place symbolic of millions of innocent lives lost is not and never will be the place to express that opinion.

We are left in the difficult situation of having to grant Höcke his unpleasant beliefs, but that certainly does not make him welcome where his beliefs would bite hardest.

by Timothy Van Gardingen

Feature photo: Björn Höcke at open house in Thüringer Landtag, 13 Juni 2015. By © Vincent Eisfeld / vincent-eisfeld.de, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

 

 

 

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The threat to journalism in the post-truth era


orginally posted at The Gryphon

It wouldn’t be an official Trump announcement without a light hint of outrage. This time it is journalists who had a lot to worry about. In his first press conference since becoming President-Elect – something he appears to have actively avoided until now – Trump blocked certain media groups from speaking. He accused them of cultivating ‘fake news’ and therefore should remain silent.

Trump’s stance is worrying. It shows a willingness to break unsaid rules and expectations regarding political transparency. It is also a direct attack on freedom of speech, that fundamental concept which the US claims to champion so vehemently.

Unfortunately there is popular fuel for his statement. ‘Fake news’ is becoming a norm, not an exception.  A woman in Germany, for example, reported a horrific attack carried out on a teenager by an asylum seeker. It came to light later that it never happened, but not before the fakes news had spread.

On the surface then, it may well look as if the President-Elect would be justified in denouncing fake news. The problem is that, to him, his critics are the creators of fake news. A word against Trump is not a truth. What is not ‘truth’ is now to be censored. If the alarm bells are not ringing yet, they should be.

When the President-Elect, soon to be one of the most powerful people in the world, can decide who can and cannot express their views, there is a distinct threat to freedom of the press. It is essential that all sides of debate are free to question, criticize and praise as they will, because it is fundamental to the transparency of a democracy. The powerful must be held to account and that becomes impossible when critical voices are silenced.

How does this case affect the rest of the world? It spreads. A meeting of the European parliament group ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom) has already followed suit. The meeting, where right-populist leaders including Frauke Petry, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders attended, likewise denied entry to left-leaning news sources. Trump has set a new precedent.

Transparency is on the way out and with it comes the rise of actual fake news. A new website has opened called ‘hoaxmap’ which plots all recently discovered fake news stories across Germany and Austria (not yet for the UK, but perhaps the website will expand in the future). The map is completely covered. Whatever you think of the media, one of its main roles theoretically is to keep the leaders of the world in check. It cannot enforce, but it can raise awareness and encourage action. If the journalistic sphere becomes inundated with fake news it will become impossible to do so. Journalists will face more false leads and a permanent threat of being blocked from important events. At the same time people will lose total trust in the press.

The protocol governing political transparency exists for a reason. That transparency is necessary for our society to function properly. If any change was ever needed, it would be towards a more transparent system; not change in which the looking glass slowly frosts over.

By Timothy Van Gardingen

Rogue One and crisis in the Middle East: an Analysis


originally posted in The Gryphon 

The new addition to the Star Wars world, Rogue One, has painted a much darker picture than its predecessors. In doing so it has also accentuated possible existing themes related to conflict in the Middle East. The latest film goes a step further and can be seen as a damning critique not only of current events, but also of the western meddling of over a century.

The Star Wars world pitches the ‘Rebels’ against an evil ‘Empire’. If we look to history for the main causes for conflict in the Middle East, the topic of European colonialism – predominantly British – appears promptly. The empire’s leadership of course has always spoken with a British accent, although the British do seem to traditionally be evil in American films anyway. Their uniforms also without a doubt have a certain 20th century vibe; a time where the British Empire was at its strength.

The Rebel Alliance represents the resulting anger that eventually developed throughout the Middle East. Pressured by an unwelcome power from far away, each rebel is a lost soul fighting for what they or their family once knew.

Cassian Anor epitomises this resentment. A roguish character who has been embroiled in conflict since a child, he knows only war. This is the situation we now face in the Middle East. For some countries the fighting has continued for generations. A child brought up to adulthood through continuous conflict will grow to accept it as normality, no matter how tough or how much suffering and loss it inflicts.

Cassian’s speech to Jyn before the final assault of the film highlights the beliefs such a life creates. Cassian fights the good fight. He may kill and commit atrocities, but as long as he keeps telling himself that those actions are ‘good’, then he is in the right.

Here Cassian appears strikingly similar to the rebel defenders of Aleppo. On social media the defenders against Assad’s soldiers were seen to be fighting for a greater good. As the rebels broadcasted messages across the web, the sound of bullets and bombs echoed in the background. That the rebel forces in Aleppo carried out executions and launched missiles at civilians was forgotten.  The world’s sadness and pity appeared directed at fighters who weren’t as harmless as they appeared online rather than the helpless civilians left within the walls of the city.

The film would have already been made by the time of the siege of Aleppo, but what is important is the similarity of how events turned out between the Star Wars galaxy and our current reality. The rebels of Aleppo were painted as something close to martyrs and the dark side of their fight has been glazed over in favour of anti-Assad sentiment. Aleppo was no doubt a horrific moment of the conflict in the Middle East, but the reluctance to engage critically towards the rebel force’s story covers up implications that a Star Wars film helps to reveal.

Jyn Erso offers a very diferent and valuable perspective. She is the daughter of a defected Imperial scientist. Her childhood holds memories of the ‘enemy’ as normal life. She learns to hate the Empire, but not before spending years resigned to a life of apathy towards its dominion.

In the modern day, Jyn resembles the western internet community; a land where a million sad smileys are sent and nothing tangible is done. She also represents the colonial era British citizen. She is passively a player and beneficiary of the Empire’s exploitation but only comes to realise its dark side (excuse the pun) after her family becomes dissident. Jyn expresses in the film that if she accepts silently her pseudo-enslavement to the Empire, then a satisfactory existence is possible. This is the life of a citizen under a despotic dictatorship; the life many will have experienced in the countries carved from the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Though true that the film could be seen more generally as a critique of colonialism and imperialism, the more direct link to the Middle East comes from the film’s imagery. The main planet essentially shares its name with the city Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Likewise the architecture and culture of the setting is synonymous with the Middle East, albeit sufficiently Sci-fi-ed.

Perhaps most importantly however is the Empire’s ground for colonising the planet. The empire is there to harvest kyber crystals, a fuel needed to power the Death Star’s planet-shattering capabilities. Fuel was the main point of contention in Middle Eastern colonialism too. The British Empire needed oil, and just like Darth Vader’s Empire, that fuel served first and foremost a military purpose: The British Navy.

British empiricism did however have its contemporary critics. Figures such as T.E Laurence and Gertrude Bell may be romanticised figures now but they were in some ways British dissenters. Galen Erso fills the roll of dissenter in Rogue One, choosing only to re-join the Empire in order to destroy it from within. This may not have been the intention of the above historical figures, but criticism of empirical action has certainly always been part of the conflict in the Middle East.

Finally remains the contentious issue of religion. There is an impossible to avoid link between European colonialism in the Middle East and Central Asia and the rise of radical Islam. In Rogue One, disregard for Jedha’s temple leads to the Monk character Chirrut Îmwe joining the fight against the empire. The message is clear: religion is not radical, but radicalised. A conquering land may claim to be able to bring peace to a people (the British claimed to do so in its justifications for owning India) but to disregard culture and belief can lead to violence.

Whether intentional or not, Rogue One gives a new perspective on the continuing conflicts in the Middle East. The most troubling element arising from a comparison between reality and the Star Wars galaxy is a question of perspective. Until Rogue One, the Star Wars series had a very clear distinction between who was good and who wasn’t. Somehow the blurring of those lines in Rogue One has highlighted the fact that the Empire is a past Europe and the Rebel alliance is a battered and bruised Middle East, tired of decades of exploitation and war. A question of who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’ is fruitless, but there remains a large amount of deficit responsibility in both the Star Wars galaxy and our own.